PHO703: Robert Adams

I looked at the work of Robert Adams in the first module but that was only briefly, in connection with the New Topographics movement, and in any case I did not yet have the understanding to appreciate what he was trying to do.

A second, more careful look suggests that Robert Adams is a considerable influence on my work, even if I haven’t fully appreciated it. I well remember studying Los Angeles Spring (Adams 1986) ten months ago, and something about those images has undoubtedly remained with me. I would guess this is the quality for which Adams has often been praised: the deceptive simplicity of his images – they are far deeper than they first appear to be. They do not just show the American landscape. They show the story of what has happened to it, but in a way that encourages the viewer to discover it for themselves. There is no striving here for the shock and awe of the American sublime (which the New Topographics movement was a reaction against anyway). Adams is nuanced and never insistent.

Robert Adams Summer Nights Walking
Fig.1: Robert Adams 2009. From Summer Nights, Walking.

The work I have been looking at recently is mostly from Summer Nights, Walking (Adams 2009). The apparent intent was lyrical: ‘My original goal was mainly to document some of the evening peace and mystery that I remember as a child, those dusks when the lightning bugs came out’ (Chang 2009). But Adams then quickly adds, ‘I should have been suspicious … .’ In reality Adams found only glimpses of his childhood. In the interim, the streets of his childhood had become so unsafe that he was obliged to hire a bodyguard to accompany him on his photography walks (Chang 2009), and the fireflies and wildlife had disappeared under new suburban sprawl.

The upshot is that the deceptive simplicity of clapperboard houses from 50 years ago is often accompanied by a sense of menace. The shadows and the beauty combine with the sinister. Doug Rickard expressed it well in a review of Summer Nights, Walking: ‘Robert Adams refers to a William Blake prayer that deftly describes this paradox …  “The splendor of the Creation but also the reality of the Wolf and the Lion.”’ (Rickard 2010). Another reviewer found similar qualities: ‘There is something eerie about it all, something unnatural, haunting and dangerous. It is uplifting and depressing at the same time. There is a drama unfolding here, but only surreptitiously. It is a quality that is later put to good use by photographers such as Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson’ (Bareman 2014).

And, I suppose, by me. I am also photographing change stalked by the wolf and the lion. Everything about the streets here changed during the pandemic, even if only for a while. Oxford is all about change. The old city centre of 1001 tourist images is quickly changing as new modern buildings go up to house the university students of the future. The city limits are changing under a wave of new building. The suburbs are changing as inequality continues its relentless march and more and more people are pushed into the margins, into degraded housing or into homelessness. I first saw Oxford as a child, but like Adams in Summer Nights, Walking those far-off childhood memories are not the current reality. The point, however, is not to mourn this but to use it as a source of tension in my images, while remembering that nuance works and insistent doesn’t.

There are a couple of other points about Robert Adams that interest me, but for the sake of brevity I will cover them in separate posts.

References

ADAMS, Robert. 1986. Los Angeles Spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

ADAMS, Robert. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.

ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.

BAREMAN, Karen. 2014. ‘Summer Nights, Walking – A Personal Understanding of Robert Adams’ Seminal Work’. Visual Resonances [online]. Available at: https://www.visualresonances.com/book-reviews/summer-nights-walking-a-personal-understanding-of-robert-adams-seminal-work/ [accessed 1 Aug 2020].

RICKARD, Doug. 2010. ‘Robert Adams – “Summer Nights Walking” (2009)’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2010/04/robert-adams-summer-nights-walking-2009.html [accessed 31 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Robert ADAMS. 2009. From Summer Nights, Walking. From: Robert Adams. 2009. Summer Nights, Walking. Revised ed. New York: Aperture/Yale University Art Gallery.

PHO703: The Sublime

I have been looking at Simon Morley’s The Sublime (Morley 2010). This is relevant to my practice first because the uncanny (an important element in night photography) can be seen as an aspect of the sublime, and second because there is the sublime around in Oxford – some big views and vistas of the Thames, streets and squares full of large medieval buildings in seemingly perfect arrangements, and slightly sinister and uncanny areas when darkness falls.

Morley begins by laying down a baseline definition of the sublime:

‘The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, likes beyond the human – God or gods, the daemon or Nature – is a matter for great disagreement. Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence 1976′ (Morley 2010: 12).

Morley suggests that the sublime experience is the moment reason and certainties crumble. ‘The sublime experience is fundamentally transformative. … Something rushes in and we are profoundly altered’ (Morley 2010: 12). Morley’s divides the sublime into four different kinds, each one stemming from the ideas of Longinus, Burke, Kant or Schiller. This is not the place to engage in a long intellectual discussion, but the essential point I am trying to take away from this is that the sublime is an experience and it always involves coming up against limits – the limits of nature or self, beyond which lies the unknown. Reaching these limits is unsettling and the unknown beyond them may evoke feelings that range from awestruck to terrifying.

The question, however, is what these ideas mean in practice and how may they affect me photographically. It is not hard to find the sublime in the history of art, in for example the awe and exultation often associated with the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or in the mighty new industrial age of Lang’s Metropolis. Or, of course, in much of the landscape photography of Ansel Adams in which the Rückenfigur is first the photographer and then the viewer.

Photographically, there are many ways of expressing these ideas today. The sublime of the photographic seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto can be compared to the paintings of Mark Rothko and both can be compared to the paintings of Barnett Newman who announced in 1948 that the ‘Sublime is Now … We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions’ (Morley 2010: 25-7).

While for another project I would love to produce something akin to Sugimoto’s seascapes, my walks along the Thames on summer evenings this year have produced something quite different. I have felt a more Burkean sublime, an experience, based in nature and shot through with pastoral and melancholy. Oxford is much about preserving the past – one thinks of Lewis Carroll or Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – but of course that past is gone and the truth is that much of it was always a sentimental fiction. All I can do is photograph what I see before me and try to bring out something of its complex mixture of sublime, pastoral, elegiac, modern and sometimes disturbing.

Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020.
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime: an old and sometimes grand city gently subsiding. From Silent City.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime. Three Men in a Boat? The reality is more likely an offer of illegal substances from shadows on the towpath. From Silent City.

Two aspects of the sublime easier for me to express are the uncanny and the modern sublime of the contemporary world of bright lights, grands projets, huge structures and high technology, a world all about power.

The uncanny is that unsettling feeling of uncertainty or ambiguity that can arise when we come up against a kind of limit and perhaps long-forgotten childhood memories surface and are re-experienced through now-adult eyes. The modern locus of this is Freud (Freud et al. 2003) and sometimes the surrealists and I covered it in the previous module.

Fig. 11: Mark Crean 2020. Silent City.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Elements of the uncanny, harking back to the theories of Freud and photographically to the practice of photographers such as Brandt and Brassaï. From Silent City.

The modern sublime is something all around us, at a time when the valuation of Apple Corp is greater than the GDP of Russia. It is in William Klein’s Atom Bomb Sky, New York of 1955 or Nadav Kander’s images of vast new building projects along the Yangtze in China (Kander 2010). Oxford has little of this, being mostly an old and suburban place. There are one or two views of exalted and powerful places and I covered some of them this summer (see figures 3 and 4).

Fig . 2: Mark Crean 2020. From Silent City.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From Silent City.
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Silent City.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. The power of modernity contrasted with the prison-like conditions of its reality. From Silent City.

The sublime is a very interesting story and is definitely something I need to study more and bring into my images. It offers another source of tension and ambiguity, and I need that in my images – the tension, for example, between what the modern world promises and the sometimes dispiriting and exploitative results the modern world can produce. That too is part of the story.

References

FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York : Penguin.

KANDER, Nadav. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

MORLEY, Simon. 2010. The Sublime. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime: an old and sometimes grand city gently subsiding. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford.  From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. Elements of the uncanny, harking back to the theories of Freud and photographically to the practice of photographers such as Brandt and Brassaï. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The power of modernity contrasted with the prison-like conditions of its reality. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.

PHO703: Michael Kenna

In trying to educate myself a bit more about black and white photography, I have been much enjoying the work of the photographer Michael Kenna, a real find (Kenna 2020). Kenna seems best known as a landscape photographer but that is not what interests me about his practice – and besides, long-exposure minimalist images of trees and snowfields, for example, which are something of a Kenna speciality, have long become an internet meme and therefore a cliché.

What I like about Kenna’s practice are these:

First, I think his series called the Rouge, after the old Ford car plant of the same name in Michigan, is quite amazing (Kenna 1995). Kenna has some equally impressive sequences of other big industrial sites like power stations. This is the modern sublime, the expression of the huge, transcendent power of the machine and the modern world but taken at the exact moment these old industries were changing, so imbued with time and history. Kenna’s understanding of scale (these sites are enormous), composition, contrast and tonality (and how to use tonality to create depth-of-field effects) strike me as masterful. I took one look and thought: I really would like to be able to do that.

Michael Kenna 1995. The Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 1: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 2: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.
Fig. 2: Michael Kenna 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan.

Second, I like Kenna’s emphasis on the power of suggestion:

‘I try to photograph what’s both visible and also invisible but sensed, memories, traces, atmospheres, stories, suggestions. I like to think that what’s actually visible and photographed acts as a catalyst for our imagination to access the unseen. Empty isn’t sad to me; it’s a state of being opposite to being full. Emptiness can be a state of meditation that we should sometimes try to reach. We live busy, cluttered lives, and some moments of complete calm—when we can put aside all the cares and baggage of our lives—cannot help but be a healthy respite. It’s a form of freedom, an oasis, a point of recharging’ (Sawalich 2011).

Kenna elaborates elsewhere on the play between the visible and invisible, presence and absence. In fact, these are rather a trope in night photography and much used by, for example, Todd Hido and Rut Blees Luxemburg.

‘I do feel that most of my photographs hint at, speak of, certainly invite human presence, even though there is no specific illustration. I find that the absence of people in my photographs helps to suggest a certain atmosphere of anticipation. I often allude to a theater stage set. We are waiting for the actors to come out. There is anticipation … The actors are in the wings and an audience waits. It is the waiting and what happens in that interval of time that interests me’ (Baskerville 1995).

This articulates what I have been trying to do. There is little more dull than being buttonholed by something, even if a photograph. Like all art, photographs work, I think, by giving the viewer the space to create their own stories out of what they see and experience. Looking is active, not passive. This is why shadows and the dark are so important in night photography. It is not just to create an air of noir spookiness. It is to create space for the viewer’s imagination to come into play.

Third, Kenna has some helpful ideas about both black and white and night photography. He considers black and white ‘immediately more mysterious than colour because we see In colour all the time. It is quieter than colour’ (McElhearn 2019). And the loss of colour means ‘less information allows your imagination to work more to create more options. I like this idea. It goes back to writing. With haiku poetry, just a few words suggest an enormous world’ (Light & Land 2019).

‘I try to eliminate elements that are insignificant, unimportant, distracting, annoying. I concentrate on elements that suggest something. I prefer an element of suggestion in my photography, rather than a detailed and accurate description. I think of my photographs as visual haiku poems, rather than full-length novels’ (Light & Land 2019).

Finally, Kenna is refreshingly frank about night photography:

‘It is important to understand that night photography is not an exact science, it is a highly subjective area. Once a foundation is in place, there is tremendous potential for added creativity. The night has an unpredictable character – our eyes cannot see cumulatively as film can. So, what is being photographed is often physically impossible for us to see! There is artifice at night; light is often multidirectional, there are strong shadows; with elements of danger and secrecy, long exposures sometimes merges night into day – certainly it is a good antidote for previsualization!’ (Baskerville 1995).

This is potent: an inexact, unpredictable and subjective pursuit, one with great potential for creativity but photographically one which also requires very careful handling (because it is in black and white) and attention to composition and tonality. And it can only work effectively by suggestion and allusion. Try to be insistent and you will ruin the atmosphere. Cumulatively, these ideas can be seen in Kenna’s many images from France – urban photography not dissimilar from some of my own territory here in Oxford.

Fig. 3: Michael Kenna 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France.
Fig. 3: Michael Kenna 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France.
Fig. 4: Michael Kenna n.d. France.
Fig. 4: Michael Kenna 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France.

I am so glad to have found Michael Kenna’s practice. It is not mine, and there is no point in simply emulating another’s work. I like rougher, sharper social edges, for example. But as a set of ideas to work towards, this is a real challenge and I hope to take it up.

References

BASKERVILLE, Tim. 1995. ‘Interview with Michael Kenna’. The Nocturnes [online]. Available at: http://www.thenocturnes.com/resources/kenna.html [accessed 28 Jul 2020]

KENNA, Michael. 2020. ‘Michael Kenna’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/index2.php [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

KENNA, Michael. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.

LIGHT & LAND. 2019. ‘Michael Kenna Interview: Curiosity Is Important’. Light & Land [online]. Available at: https://www.lightandland.co.uk/blog/view/michael-kenna-interview [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

McELHEARN, Kirk. 2019. ‘The Semiotics of Black and White Photographs’. Kirkville [online]. Available at: https://kirkville.com/the-semiotics-of-black-and-white-photographs/ [accessed 28 Jul 2020].

SAWALICH, William. 2011. ‘Michael Kenna: The Photograph As Sense Memory’. Digital Photo Pro [online]. Available at: https://www.digitalphotopro.com/profiles/michael-kenna-the-photograph-as-sense-memory/ [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]

Figures

Figure 1. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 133, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 2. Michael KENNA. 1995. Study 87, the Rouge, Dearborn, Michigan. From: Michael Kenna. 1995. The Rouge. Santa Monica CA: Ram Publications.
Figure 3. Michael KENNA. 2004. Outer Staircase, Mont St. Michel, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Mont St Michel’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=9 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]
Figure 4. Michael KENNA. 1997. Bassin de Latone, Versailles, France. From: Michael Kenna. 2020. ‘Le Notre’s Gardens’. Michael Kenna [online]. Available at: http://www.michaelkenna.net/gallery.php?id=31 [accessed 28 Jul 2020.]

 

PHO703 Week 9: Workshops

One of the tasks of this module has been to prepare a workshop or similar event connected with one’s research project. My contribution takes the form of a group photowalk in Oxford after dark on the evening of day one followed the next day by a round-table discussion and presentation of work on a platform like Zoom. I would market this on places like Meetup, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter and Daily Info (Oxford’s popular listings site). Ticketing could be taken care of on Eventbrite.

I have prepared a pdf with descriptions and details of the kind I would give to participants here: Crean-Oxford-Photowalk

Lockdown means this is not going to happen for a few months. However, it has been a useful and enjoyable lesson. The points that have emerged are these:

    • Know your audience
    • Become familiar the technology you will need for the job
    • Research and thorough planning are key to a smooth event
    • Understand and control your costs

It is important to have an audience in mind and to have a good idea of what that audience wants and is capable of. In my case I have done photowalks a few times before, so I know that many participants will want the opportunity to photograph some of Oxford’s historic university buildings, receive a little instruction, and network around conversation with other participants in a good pub. Some will be knowledgeable photographers with good cameras but a fair number won’t be and may come with only their smartphones.

So my proposed route is tailored to what my audience wants, not to what I may want. In that sense it is commercial and a little touristic, but if I want the business I must know my audience. I might want to slip off to remoter or more edgy areas in search of tourism-free images, but most of my audience are not there for that – and there is nothing wrong with their preferences.

Second, it is important to be familiar with current technology. My route can be plotted in surprising detail on Google Maps and the URL for a fully annotated map can be given to every participant (Crean 2020). The URL for the Google map I have prepared is here. They will have the route, the points of interest and the walking directions all on their smartphone. The next day, the round-table discussion, calls for knowledge of conferencing software like Zoom. We are now entering an era where online learning and discussion will become much more predominant, and if I want to serve an audience I cannot afford not to know about these things.

Map 2020-07-28-2
Fig 1: Mark Crean 2020. An annotated Google Map of a proposed photowalk after dark in Oxford. If downloaded to a smartphone, much more detail becomes available including descriptions of what to photograph at each stopping point.

Third, and almost always, it is important to plan carefully and think things through. On any photowalk and especially after dark there are many things to consider. Safety is paramount and needs to be flagged up to everyone. Participant contact details are essential if people are late or get lost and there are plenty of items of kit to remind people to bring with them, if only a rainproof coat, spare batteries and a torch.

Fourth is cost. Does this idea make sense financially? A photowalk and online discussion of the kind I have planned does incur costs and if these are not passed on it must be run at a loss. And in any case, what will the market bear and what do I think my time is worth (always a challenging question)? In this case I think I would price a ‘ticket’ at £15-20 per head, on the basis of a maximum of 8-10 participants (too many participants is a turn-off). There may always be others who offer similar ideas for free, but my plan is to offer something in exchange for something. I am a knowledge worker offering expertise. Besides, the basic psychology is that if someone buys a ticket, they then think it is an event worth going to and they are much more likely to turn up.

References

CREAN, Mark. 2020. ‘Oxford: A Walk After Dark’. Google My Maps [online]. Available at: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1qnSGOKbbjtgfukI_jjYo45u67inTjqyK&usp=sharing [accessed 26 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. An annotated Google Map of a proposed photowalk after dark in Oxford. If downloaded to a smartphone, much more detail becomes available including descriptions of what to photograph at each stopping point. From: Google My Maps [online]. Available at: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1qnSGOKbbjtgfukI_jjYo45u67inTjqyK&usp=sharing [accessed 26 Jul 2020].

PHO703: Matt Black

Matt Black is an American documentary photographer with the Magnum agency (Magnum Photos 2020). He is known for his projects revealing the poverty and deprivation across much of the United States, especially in more rural areas. They include projects like The Geography of Poverty, The Black Okies and The Dry Land (Magnum Photos 2020). Black’s practice is relevant to mine because part of my intention is to show the scale of inequality here in Oxford. It is also relevant because Black photographs in black and white.

Black has a phrase that has stuck in my mind: ‘The work of a photographer is to reveal hidden things’ (Magnum Photos 2020). Things may be hidden for many reasons but what I have picked up here is the importance of looking beneath appearances and also of paying attention to details. A fleeting gesture, as in Fig. 1, can be recorded or missed in a few seconds.

Fig. 2: Matt Black 2015. El Paso, Texas.
Fig. 1: Matt Black 2015. El Paso, Texas.

Details may show the extraordinary in the ordinary, in Stephen Shore’s formula (O’Hagan 2015), but they may also reveal hidden truths we may or may not wish to see. So details matter, a lot. In terms of my practice, details are a way of introducing suggestion and anticipation. They suggest human presence by its absence. That is important to me because I am deliberately not introducing people into my images. If there is a person in the image then the story changes and becomes all about them. That is not the story I want to tell. My story is about a silent city – what is left when human presence is suggested, but not stated.

Black comes from a community similar to those he photographs. I like his bluff, no-nonsense approach that places a premium on honesty and integrity. This is a timely reminder of the importance of ethics in my work. People will not trust you, and have no reason to, if you are untrustworthy with them. Building trust takes time. The good images only come after your subjects allow you in, otherwise the photography will always be from the margins, the outside, and it will show. In Black’s words,

‘My approach is the same: I put what I am doing on the table, I tell people why I’m there and why I think it’s important. At this point, I have the benefit of clarity. Being clear helps when it comes time to explain.’ … ‘But the bigger point is this: language, culture, looks and appearance, all of that melts away when you’ve built a real understanding with somebody. People really communicate on a totally different level than language. You’re credible, you’re not; you care, you don’t – that’s how people size you up. That’s been my experience’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).

Black is also good on the importance of becoming fully involved. If you want results you have to give it your all:

‘ …my work in general, and I think the broader role that documentary photography should play, is in pointing out those uncomfortable realities. … You do experience things differently as a photographer. You experience things more viscerally and directly, you go places that other people don’t go. That’s what it does, it immerses you even more deeply in an environment. … To me that’s one of the great rewards of doing this work, you get to see things on this basic, human, observational level, and it informs who you are as a person. … Photography is the voice I have and when you accept a voice or you accept a medium to work in you also inherently accept its limitations. So I focus on what I can do best … ‘ (British Journal of Photography 2015).

This is good to hear and not dissimilar to what Larry Towell has said. Perhaps all really good photographers would say it. Black again,

‘The main thing I’ve learned is that you have to give up thinking you’re in charge of your work. You’re really not, so I don’t get frustrated when things aren’t going the way I thought they might. I’ve learned to remain open.  … To become your own photographer takes time, and a lot of hard work. That’s what the challenge is: keeping true to something when you don’t really know what’s next’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).

This is eerily similar to my path through Falmouth: to find my voice, which requires hard work and not trying to manipulate outcomes, and then to remain true to one’s voice. This requires clarity, which Black considers extremely important

What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
Clarity.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
To tell a truth as simply as possible.
(Behrmann 2020)

Black’s voice stands out among the poor and migrant communities whose stories he tries to tell. To me he is inspirational. As Black says, ‘ … you can’t talk about poverty in isolation without talking about everything else. It’s a part of a social structure, therefore everyone is involved. You can’t objectify into “us” and “them”. … Everything is separating, becoming more unequal – and the whole idea of a common country seems to be coming apart’ (Genova 2018). I feel exactly the same about my country and the demagogues who run it.

Fig. 1: Matt Black 2014. Fallowed Tomato Fields, Corcoran, California.
Fig. 2: Matt Black 2014. Fallowed Tomato Fields, Corcoran, California.

References

ALEXIA FOUNDATION. 2012. ‘Interview with Matt Black’. Alexia Foundation [online]. Available at: https://www.alexiafoundation.org/blog/2012/10/09/interview-with-matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].

BEHRMANN, Kai. 2020. ‘Matt Black: “Let The Pictures Come To You”’. The Art of Creative Photography [online]. Available at: https://artofcreativephotography.com/professionalphotojournalists/let-the-pictures-come-to-you-matt-black/ [accessed 21 Jul 2020].

BLACK, Matt. 2020. ‘Matt Black’. Matt Black [online]. Available at: https://www.mattblack.com/ [accessed 22 Jul 2020].

BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2015. ‘Matt Black’s “Moral” Photography of America’s Sprawling Poverty’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2015/08/matt-blacks-moral-photography-of-americas-sprawling-poverty/ [accessed 20 Jul 2020].

GENOVA, Alexandra. 2018. ‘The Geography of Poverty in America: Matt Black’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/society-arts-culture/poverty-and-mythologies-in-america/ [accessed 17 Jul 2020].

MAGNUM PHOTOS. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2015. ‘Shady Character: How Stephen Shore Taught America to See in Living Colour.’ The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jul/09/stephen-shore-america-colour-photography-1970s [accessed 4 Mar 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Matt BLACK. 2015. El Paso, Texas. From: Magnum Photos. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].
Figure 2. Matt BLACK. 2014. Fallowed Tomato Fields, Corcoran, California.  From: Magnum Photos. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].

PHO703 Week 8: More on Photobooks

This week I have really enjoyed two video presentations on making photobooks published on Vimeo by Self Publish, Be Happy.

The first is How To Design a Photobook by a designer and publisher, Brian Paul Lamotte (Lamotte 2020). The second is How To Edit and Sequence a Photobook by an editor and publisher, Bruno Ceschel (Ceschel 2020).

I found both absolutely fascinating and, running to a couple of hours each, full of very useful information. So far, they are the find of the module. Lamotte covered all kinds of photobook design, often highly experimental and creative. I simply had not realized how much variety there is and how much is now possible working with printers, binders and designers. He offered a clear breakdown of the steps involved at the start of any book project:

  • Who is this book for?
  • What does this book consist of?
  • Where does this book need to thrive?
  • When will this book be produced and published?
  • Why does this book need to be made?
  • How will this book be made?

Lamotte also said that successful books were designed for the smallest number of people (primarily, the artist, designer and editor). Surprising, perhaps, but I think correct: one has to have a particular kind of audience in mind. Designing a book to satisfy every audience will dilute the final outcome. After that, he divided the planning into three distinct stages: reference, collaboration and process/production.

Ceschel covered the curation and editing of images. I liked his comparison of sequencing to following the arrangement of a piece of music (he illustrated this by breaking down the blocks of a pop song) or the techniques used in cinema narration. He also went into sequencing by using the tones in an image. Both Lamotte and Ceschel emphasized the importance of pulling in the reader right from the very first page and then keeping them entranced deep inside the world of the book with astute shifts of mood and approach. ‘The world of the book’ as something to be created in itself is emerging as a key concept here.

These videos are causing me to rethink what a photobook can be and how to approach it from the ground up. I am very glad I have found them. Not long ago, Ceschel wrote Self Publish, Be Happy : A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto (Ceschel 2015) and I will try to find a copy.

These videos are a helpful counterpoint to Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks (Colberg 2017) which I read a week or two ago. That is really helpful too but in a different way. It is more formal and is more concerned than are Ceschel and Lamotte with clarity of concept, identifying an audience, marketing the work and selling it, the other and equally important side of the coin to the editing and design process.

Nick Sethi Khichdi (Kitchari)
Fig. 1: Nick Sethi 2018. From his book Khichdi Kitchari (Dashwood Books, New York), designed by Brian Paul Lamotte. The idea, here, is to convey the chaos and life of the Indian streets – the world of this book, a world created by close collaboration between artist, designer and printer. It was nominated for the Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation First Photobook Prize.

References

CESCHEL, Bruno. 2015. Self Publish, Be Happy : A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto. New York: Aperture.

CESCHEL, Bruno. 2020. How To Edit and Sequence a Photobook. Self Publish, Be Happy video. Available at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/howtoeditandsequence?autoplay=1 [accessed 21 Jul 2020].

COLBERG, Jörg. 2017. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. New York: Routledge.

LAMOTTE, Brian Paul. 2020. How To Design a Photobook [Film]. Self Publish, Be Happy video. Available at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/howtodesignaphotobook/434056549 [accessed 21 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1: Nick SETHI. 2018. From his book Khichdi Kitchari (Dashwood Books, New York), designed by Brian Paul Lamotte. The idea, here, is to convey the chaos and life of the Indian streets – the world of this book, a world created by close collaboration between artist, designer and printer. It was nominated for the Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation First Photobook Prize. From: Brian Paul Lamotte. 2020. How To Design a Photobook [Film]. Self Publish, Be Happy video. Available at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/howtodesignaphotobook/434056549 [accessed 21 Jul 2020].

PHO703: Edmond Terakopian

On 10 July I took part in an online seminar come workshop with Edmond Terakopian (Terakopian 2020 A), part of a series that can be referenced on his blog (Terakopian 2020 B). Edmond is a veteran press photographer, photo-journalist and teacher. The occasion was largely to celebrate 31 years in his profession. Several things emerged for me about the skills required in professional photography today.

  • In order to put people at their ease and stop them ‘posing’ for the image, one needs to learn how to relax with people in all kinds of situations and walks of life.
  • One has to be super adaptable but still know how to produce images clients will want. Edmond’s round can take in fashion and events, music and arts, disasters and news stories, portraits, advertising photography and his own longer-term projects.
  • One has to be creative enough to think on one’s feet. A client might say they like your style, then ask you to come up with a photographic proposal for a marketing pitch for a new product, all of which has to be done to a very high standard in about two weeks. It is all down to you and your creative ideas.
  • One has to be canny enough to know the difference between a good image and an image that will make the front page of a newspaper or magazine. Many photographers might arrive at an event and then make quite similar and perfectly acceptable images, but the image that makes the front page will almost always have a telling detail or nuance the others do not have. It might be a gesture, an expression, an angle of view, a small child intruding into the frame, etc. A talented photographer needs to be alert to these perhaps small, fleeting gestures that in the end make all the difference.
  • One needs to be a ruthless curator of one’s own work, particularly under tight deadlines. That can only be done if one has a clear idea of what makes a powerful image and a clear idea of one’s intent in making the image throughout the whole process.

I realize these ideas are perhaps not what art photographers are looking for but they do appeal to me as an amateur flâneur and street photographer. The seminar with Edmond has rekindled my interest in photography and reminded me of some important points it is easy to forget.

Terakopian. Child at Tate Modern. 2018
Fig. 1: Edmond Terakopian 2018. ‘A child runs around whilst bathed in rays of sunlight in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, during a heat wave Bank Holiday. Bankside, London, UK.’ This image was shortlisted for the British Photography Awards.

References

TERAKOPIAN, Edmond. 2020 A. ‘Edmond Terakopian: Photojournalist’. Edmond Terakopian [online]. Available at: http://www.terakopian.com/ [accessed 14 Jul 2020].

TERAKOPIAN, Edmond. 2020 B. ‘Photo This & That’. Edmond Terakopian [online]. Available at: https://photothisandthat.co.uk/ [accessed 14 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Edmond TERAKOPIAN. 2018. ‘A child runs around whilst bathed in rays of sunlight in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, during a heat wave Bank Holiday. Bankside, London, UK.’ This image was shortlisted for the British Photography Awards. From: Flickr [online]. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/terakopian/40305778310/in/dateposted/ [accessed 05 Jul 2020].

PHO703 Week 5: Three ‘Surfaces’

I have spent most of this week preparing for the Landings exhibition and looking at commissioning a book dummy. I have also read Jörg Colberg’s Understanding Photobooks (Colberg 2017) and Ralph Rugoff’s ‘You Talking to Me? On Curating Group Shows that Give You a Chance to Join the Group’ (Rugoff 2006).

Both were really helpful, especially Colberg’s book. After 25 years working in commercial book publishing, I know from my own experience that his key points are spot on. The points that emerged for me are

  • Who is going to buy this book? Without a convincing case for an audience interested enough and large enough to support the work by buying it, one does not have a project.
  • Collaboration is very important. A book is a team effort in many respects. It is a collaboration between reader and photographer. It is also a collaboration among the design and production team. A good curatorial eye from, say, an experienced graphic designer is very important.
  • A photobook must be conceived from the start as exactly that. It is not just a book that happens to contain photographs.
  • Clarity of concept and intention are absolutely vital. Without them, one cannot make a coherent case to the market about ‘Why buy this book?’ or ‘What subject section should the book go into?’ One cannot tell a strong story either, nor make a convincing marketing campaign (and marketing is key to sales).
  • Good curation and sequencing are absolutely vital, too, and are a much more nuanced affair than one might think. Good curation is an art in itself. It takes time and it also takes standing back from one’s own images enough to make informed judgements about what works and what does not work in a sequence. This means that part of the skill of a good photobook is skill at elimination at the editing stage. Most of what one does as a photographer will end up being left out. Yes, one has to learn to kill off one’s own babies sometimes.
  • The photobook represents an entire body of work in its own world. It is a place, a venue, somewhere to welcome in the visitor and let them explore. This means close attention to every detail of the world of the book – design, paper, size, binding, the cover, et al.
  • Compromises are inevitable. One is not aiming for the ideal book but for the very best book that can be made in the circumstances. Budgets (particularly) and deadlines are part of those circumstances.
  • Know your strengths and your weaknesses. If what you are really good at is making the images, then concentrate on that and find or hire the best advice you can to cover all the things you don’t know about. Otherwise, you are likely to end up with a rather amateur effort and in commercial publishing, at least, the amateurs almost always end up being dished by the professionals.

Ralph Rugoff’s essay was sparky and very enjoyable (Rugoff 2006). I am not sure how useful his points will be for my work at Falmouth, but I can already see how useful they will be for my work with Oxford Photographers (the collective to which I belong) since we usually hold a joint exhibition each year as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival. I love his emphasis on an exhibition as an experience, something we are in, respond to, move through. It is not just about pictures on a wall, devoid of all context – although that is what people often think of when they think of ‘art gallery’ or ‘museum’.

I particularly like Rugoff’s distinction between the story that an exhibition purports to tell – often its theme – and the story it actually tells which emerges from interactions among the works displayed and which might be quite different from the ostensible theme. In his words, ‘The best group shows thus take on some of the qualities of installation art: rather than a chance to contemplate isolated objects, they involve us in an implied yet elusive narrative that we end up putting together ourselves as we move through the exhibition. … Finally, and most importantly, good theme shows take risks in how they address their audiences’ (Rugoff 2006: 48).

So, overall, a week rich in new ideas.

References

COLBERG, Jörg. 2017. Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. New York: Routledge.

RUGOFF, Ralph. 2006. ‘Chapter 4: You Talking To Me? On Curating Group Shows That Give You a Chance to Join the Group’. In Paula MARINCOLA (ed.). What Makes a Great Exhibition? Philadelphia: Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006, 44–51.

PHO703: Larry Towell

There is a good interview with the veteran Magnum photographer Larry Towell on Vice (Elkaim 2015). Towell is a one-off, a Canadian farmer and something of a log cabin recluse who is also a documentary photographer in powerful black and white of injustice and civil strife in Palestine and Central America, of Mennonite communities and of life from his own front porch (Towell 2020). Towell does not buy into much of the modern world, particularly social media which can easily become an ego-fuelled, celebrity-driven maze. He has some good comments for people who are starting out on serious photography, people like me in fact.

‘First of all, you will see change immediately, but the change will be you. You will change. That’s the first step. Beyond that, the bad guys will never tell you that you affected them. Sometimes change takes generations. The main thing is to be on the right side, and if you’re not on the right side… then you’re probably going to make a lot of money. But If you believe you have to change the world with your work, which is a very pretentious belief, then if you don’t change the world then you failed. But that’s the only way to look at it. The only thing that makes sense, so you have to be governed by an inner clock, an integrity. I think that’s what we should be doing. We lose it sometimes – I know lots of photographers who come in as journalists and go out as corporate advertising photographers making rather than $400 a day $15,000 a day. I know lots of those people. …

Fig. 1: Larry Towell 1988. El Salvador 23
Fig. 1: Larry Towell 1988. El Salvador 23.

‘The first book is always bad. At the time, you think it’s great. My first books, I won’t even show them to anybody. I’ve got boxes of them downstairs. I won’t even take them out.

‘It’s a process. Each one gets better, you get better at it, you become a better designer, you become a better photographer, or you become a better storyteller, become a better craftsman at your own work.

‘You have to be self motivated and you have to be able to take a lot of rejection. You have to be able to enjoy rejection until rejection becomes so wonderful that you just can’t wait to get another rejection so that you can get back to the grindstone so you can get more rejection. …

‘I guess the main thing is, you’ve got to get out of bed in the morning, you’ve got to get on a plane. Somehow, you have to find how to get somewhere and you have to be with the people you’re with. That’s all you can do. And not everybody is going to survive, let’s face it. There are two things everyone is in the world: one of them is a photographer and one of them is a poet.’

References

ELKAIM, Aaron Vincent. 2015. ‘You Will Change: Magnum Photographer Larry Towell Has Advice for Young Photojournalists’. Vice [online]. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/yvxpj7/you-will-change-magnum-photographer-larry-towell-has-advice-for-photojournalists-519 [accessed 09 Jul 2020].

TOWELL, Larry. 2020. ‘Larry’s General Store’. Larry’s General Store [online]. Available at: http://www.larrytowell.com/ [accessed 08 Jul 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Larry TOWELL. 1988. El Salvador 23.

PHO703 Week 4: Using the Apparatus

My experience of this week’s activities:

We were asked about our relationship with our chosen apparatus. I do not really have a relationship with my chosen apparatus. It is just an electronic box – pleasant to use and it mostly does what I want. I am sure a dozen other, similar camera systems would also be both. So, overall, I am not particularly fussy about what I use. It just needs to be competent for the task in hand.

For this week’s activity – making images with a totally unfamiliar apparatus – I chose an old Canon compact camera I have never used before and probably about 15 years old. To be frank, I though it was rubbish. It was poorly designed with very small and fiddly controls and the images it produced were crude in the extreme. Any modern smartphone would be better than this by an order of magnitude. The Japanese camera industry’s decline has roots long in the making.

I used to do a lot of ‘contemplative photography’ as part of a meditation programme. It was called Miksang which is Tibetan for ‘good eye’. The basic idea is to meditate for half an hour, then go out with a camera while trying to maintain the meditation but with a specific task in mind: for example, looking for a certain colour, looking for only dots or splashes of colour, looking for textures, looking for space (my favourite), and so forth. No photograph would be made unless there was a ‘flash’ of recognition and contact with something in the physical world. When that happened, the task was to use the photograph to express that moment of recognition, which is not necessarily the same as simply showing what is there. Andy Karr and Michael Wood organized these ideas into a programme and published them as a book (Karr and Wood 2011).

I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘contemplative photography’. As a mindfulness practice, it is somewhat based on the Zen idea that if the archer’s mind is clear and empty of all discursive thought (i.e. distractions) then the arrow has already hit the target before it is released. Or, the image has already been made (in the mind) before the shutter is pressed. These ideas do express a truth, in my view.

I can see this being a way towards the freedom that Flusser talks about (Flusser 2000: 81-2), because if the image has already been made in the mind then it is free of dependence on an apparatus. I should probably make more of these ideas in my practice, because I know from experience how useful they can be. I don’t think they are suitable for every circumstance but they probably tie in quite closely with my temperament and with my current project.

I made five images with the Canon compact, as requested. I also made a completely accidental ghosted exposure with my regular camera while having to move it a couple of times during a long exposure. The results are quite pleasing, in fact. I have experimented with the results in Photoshop, to see how they might look if expressed in other ways. However, the problem that soon arose is that experimentation is aimless without a clear intent. I do not have a clear intent so at present experimentation is just messing around. While that’s fine, I do not feel it is productive.

So for now I will leave these experiments and ideas and let them swirl around in my unconscious. Later, something new will probably emerge. I have to be patient.

References

FLUSSER, Vilém. 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion, 76–82.

KARR, Andy and Michael WOOD. 2011. The Practice of Contemplative Photography : Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes. 1st ed. Boston: Shambhala.

 

PHO703-Week4-oldcam-2
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, taken with an old Canon compact camera and the jpeg converted to black and white in Silver Efex.
PHO703-Week4-combi-2
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, This image was made by converting Fig. 1 above using Photoshop warp and paint filters and then applying a split tone using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.
PHO703-Week4-absract-1
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley – accidental image ghosting caused by moving the camera during a long exposure. This image was made with my regular Olympus camera.
PHO703-Week4-combi-4-mosaic
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by applying a Photoshop mosaic filter to Fig. 3 above, using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.
PHO703-Week4-combi-4-cyanotype
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a (digital) cyanotype using Photoshop.
PHO703-Week4-combi-4
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a split tone using Photoshop. The key colours are taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili.

Figures

Figure 1: Mark CREAN. 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, taken with an old Canon compact camera and the jpeg converted to black and white in Silver Efex. Collection of the author.
Figure 2: Mark CREAN. 2020. St Mary’s, Iffley, This image was made by converting Fig. 1 above using Photoshop warp and paint filters and then applying a split tone using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Thames at Iffley – accidental image ghosting caused by moving the camera during a long exposure. This image was made with my regular Olympus camera. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by applying a Photoshop mosaic filter to Fig. 3 above, using colours taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili. Collection of the author.
Figure 5. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a (digital) cyanotype using Photoshop. Collection of the author.
Figure 6. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Thames at Iffley. This image was made by converting Fig. 3 above into a split tone using Photoshop. The key colours are taken from a ‘blue’ sequence painting by Chris Ofili. Collection of the author.